It was my first time in a private charter plane. I must admit, I was a little anxious. The plane was a tiny 12-seater aircraft. For some reason, it reminded me of the same charter plane in the film, La Bamba that Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly boarded which lead to the tragic end of their lives. The fact that I was commuting on that plane from Brazzaville to the Odzala-Kokoua National Park made me jittery. Truth be told, I despise flying but love traveling. Over and above the bad bouts of motion sickness, I feel like at any moment, my life would be a scene out of the Final Destination film. Anyway, I boarded the plane to venture off into the Congo jungle to meet the local communities. Our goal was to plan projects to uplift the communities and protect the wildlife.
So off and away we go. We had our own hostess who provided us with a hearty meal. As we approached the National Park, never in my life had I seen such lush greenery. It looked tranquil, it looked picturesque, and everything about that bird’s eye view was perfect. I recall seeing a herd of buffalo cajoling in the saloons- quite the awe-inspiring stuff indeed. I only recalled seeing such beautiful imagery of the African landscape while nestled in my home, watching a nature documentary on NatGeo Wild. This time around, I was not enjoying this view on a silver screen. It was actually occurring in front of me! We arrived at our campsite somewhere in the middle of the Odzala-Kokoua National Park. There were no lights, no running water, nor a proper toilet. I had to make do with a hole in the ground covered by a wooden box to sit on under a decrepit thatched roof, river water that was filled in a bucket and eat food that had to be freshly cooked each day due to there being no refrigerator. It was a challenge, a huge one at that. The kitchen and dining area were out in the open overlooking the lush savannahs. It was hot and humid. Fair enough, I come from South Africa but I literally felt like someone doused me in spicy marinade and threw me into an oven to bake at 200 degrees Celsius.
Coming from an Indian home, I was raised in a pretty sheltered environment. Now, here I was roughing it out with other expats in Central Africa. When darkness engulfed us at night, it was quite a walk back from the communal kitchen to our individual tents which were positioned on elevated podiums as a safety measure. To combat the darkness and the risk of encountering an elephant or a buffalo or a hyena, we had to walk around with headlamps. We were also advised to shine our headlamps around us before we went to the toilet at night. What really shook me a bit was the fact that there was a female, spotted-hyena living in the area. I insisted on going to see her because I refused to believe that there actually was a freaken hyena in my vicinity. Blue…all I remember were those glowing, piercing blue eyes of the hyena in the darkness. She was a beautiful creature. I was quite chuffed with myself for standing about 10-meters away from a hyena.
One night, I remembered being excruciatingly restless, all while feeling the need to pee. It must have been two or three in the morning. Suddenly, I felt the entire ground shudder as the podium on which my tent was fastened swayed from side to side. There were thunderous footsteps on the ground. I felt like I was reliving that epic scene from Jurassic Park, when the T-rex approached those two terrified kids. I knew what it was. I was excited and scared at the same time. A part of me really wanted to go outside and take a peek at that magnificent juggernaut; the other part of me thought that I would be bulldozed into oblivion if the elephant felt threatened. I decided to lay low. I heard the elephant rustling with some tree branches, a murmur of a trumpet, and the magnificent giant footsteps fade away into the stillness of the brisk African night. By this point, I had mustered up enough courage to head to the toilet. I stepped out of my tent and shone my headlamp as instructed.
One…two…three…four…five…six! There were six flame-like orbs staring straight at me. First an elephant and now buffaloes! I really needed to pee; off I sprinted in Usain Bolt mode to the thatched toilet. I think that the buffaloes were more startled than me because they scurried off within seconds. I managed to finally fall asleep, while having a crafty little rodent, nicknamed Harry for company. There was something serene and quant about Odzala. I braced myself for more heart-pounding adventures in the upcoming days.